“The prudent see only the difficulties, the bold only the advantages, of a great enterprise; the hero sees both; diminishes the former and makes the latter preponderate, and so conquers.” – Johann Kaspar Lavater
Like many writers, I’ve spent the last few weeks of 2018 thinking about the work I produced during the year. The pieces I struggled with the most are the ones I’m the proudest of. There is one piece in particular, however, that persecuted me as I wrote it. It persecutes me still. Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder if I should delete it. The reason: I made Colin Kaepernick look bad. Actually, Kaepernick and people close to him made him look bad, and I wrote about it. The piece came as a surprise to me. It came as a surprise to my readers. My support for Kaepernick has been unwavering ever since he sat then kneeled during the national anthem to protest racialized police violence. My support for his causes remains unbended. Is that the same as my support for the man? Is it possible to separate the two? Resolving these questions has become an ongoing struggle for me.
I’ve followed Kaepernick and the saga around him closely ever since he began his protest. I think many of us knew before he did how harsh his punishment would be. His surprise at being tossed out of his profession, the searing pain of it was difficult to watch even from a distance. It’s part of what galvanized me, along with the simple beauty of his method of protest. The boldness of it was thrilling. I wanted to do my part to help speak up for him.
My examination of matters surrounding Kaepernick took a different path than many other writers. I poked around in places others hadn’t. After it came to light that Electronic Arts had edited Kaepernick’s name out of songs in the soundtracks of Madden NFL 18 and 19, I took a deeper look and discovered that the company had potentially used six different methods to suppress Kaepernick’s presence in the game going all the way back to Madden 17. That’s another thing about Kaepernick’s situation — there is so much more bubbling beneath the surface of it than is obvious. There is a conspiracy against him, and it’s deeper and wider than has been reported by mainstream sports media. I’d always believed NFL teams were colluding to deny Kaepernick employment. The Madden NFL shenanigans erased any lingering doubts I had — the NFL exerts too much control over the contents of the game for Kaepernick’s treatment to have been a coincidence.
How closely I examined matters surrounding Kaepernick soon became a double-edged sword.
I grew up with an abiding love of mystery stories. In hindsight, that’s what drew me to Kaepernick — what an enigma he is, how difficult it is to pin him down. I love Sherlock Holmes. Deductive reasoning fascinates me. In addition, a life of having to negotiate around people with deficient characters has fine-tuned my “that’s shady” radar. I’ve learned the hard way what happens when you ignore red flags. The result: I’ve been gifted (and cursed) with the ability to pick out small details that form part of a pattern, particularly as they apply to human behavior. I’ve also learned never to put other human beings up on pedestals.
I follow Kaepernick and Know Your Rights Camp (KYRC) — the philanthropic organization he founded — on social media. Over the past couple of years, I began to observe behavior that didn’t sit right with me, but I pushed it aside. As I discussed in the piece, Chris Brown — a man with a long history of violence and abuse against women — turning up prominently on Kaepernick and KYRC’s social media made me sit up. Particularly when Kaepernick included Brown in his #10for10 challenge, during which Kaepernick completed his pledge to donate $1 million to charity.
In my piece, I described including Brown as a misuse of Kaepernick’s power, and I stand by that. There are any number of men who haven’t put their hands on women that Kaepernick could have used his platform to highlight. Expecting he would have chosen one of them instead isn’t too big an ask from the women who support him. Kaepernick received criticism on social media for his decision to include Brown in#10for10. Many of his followers, myself included, expressed their disappointment. The thing I can’t get my arms around is how Kaepernick and the people who advise him didn’t see the obvious repercussions coming. Plenty of celebrities want to stand next to Kaepernick — he could have just pulled another name out of the hat and had it be all smooth sailing.
In truth, my concerns about Kaepernick’s prudence reach back to the beginning of his protest. Soon after his demonstration became a national news story, Kaepernick was photographed wearing socks depicting cops as pigs. On another occasion, he wore a t-shirt with a picture of Fidel Castro and Malcolm X on the front, incensing the Cuban-American community. Kaepernick’s sartorial choices didn’t offend me, but I knew that, in America, it was impossible to have mature, non-hysterical conversations about them, and Kaepernick had enough problems. In my opinion, he should have left well enough alone. For his part, Kaepernick seemed taken aback by the fervor of the hostile response.
From the beginning, it seemed Kaepernick had a communication problem. It’s one he hasn’t been able to get under control. I find this odd, because in the 2016 preseason, Kaepernick held an impromptu Q&A with reporters in the 49ers locker room, during which he explained the reasoning behind his protest, and he was impressive. His answers rang with moral clarity, and his quiet directness was powerful. All the raw materials needed to shape a potent communication strategy were present. This strategy hasn’t come to fruition, though. I hoped the kinks would sort themselves out over time, but I don’t believe that’s happened. I don’t think Kaepernick believes that’s happened either. I suspect that’s part of the reason he’s been so reclusive. I believe his extended silences are well-considered acts of prudence — a way to avoid stepping on any more rakes.
Nevertheless, as more time passed, and I observed more social media content, particularly from KYRC, I began to question if some of the problems I’d observed were more profound than stilted communication and spoke to more serious matters, to matters of character. What prodded all my misgivings to the forefront of my mind was communication from a woman claiming to have known Kaepernick during his tenure at the University of Nevada-Reno. Her recollections of him were unflattering. She claimed he was disrespectful towards women, and she couldn’t reconcile the person she’d observed with the man she saw in the media. Even so, she wasn’t trying to provide me with boiling tea to scald Kaepernick with. It was how strongly she felt about him absent vindictiveness that was convincing to me. That, and the cliché of the entitled star athlete is something we’ve all encountered in real life. Even though we both agreed that, yes, Kaepernick may have matured and changed for the better, our exchange got me to remove my rose-colored glasses.
I went back and looked over Kaepernick’s and KYRC’s social media with a less forgiving eye, and a word I’d been determinedly steering my way around leapt into focus: unethical.
The grinning celebrities who sometimes turn up on KYRC’s social media make me uncomfortable, but I understand the value they bring. They signal boost the organization to their millions of fans and social media followers. When KYRC began advertising some of these celebrities’ projects, though, the organization crossed the ethical Rubicon for me. At some point, the decision was made to turn KYRC’s social media into a promo run stop, particularly for recording artists with new albums to hawk.
Kaepernick’s partner, Nessa Diab, with whom he co-founded KYRC, is a DJ at the New York City-based hip hop radio station, Hot 97, and KYRC’s celebrity promotions coincided with her interviews of the stars. In addition, the organization’s social media accounts have been used to promote Diab’s professional projects. There’s a reason tax-exempt charities in jurisdictions all over the world are forbidden from engaging in this kind of behavior — it’s unethical. There’s no other word for it. And Kaepernick participated. A picture or short video with him was the most coveted part of the package. Using Kaepernick as a step-and-repeat for photo ops and turning the cornerstone of his philanthropy into a venue for celebrity walk-throughs isn’t a bold vision. Nor is it a prudent one.
Even with a stack of receipts staring me dead in the face, I still faltered many times in my decision to write the piece and was often anxious to the point of nausea while I worked on it. I didn’t want to hurt Kaepernick. Something about how formidable his enemies are and how far they’re willing to go to punish him for defying them plagued my conscience. It seemed like piling on, like kicking him when he was down. Except I didn’t kick him — he was punching himself in the face. I pointed to the bruises and shouted, “Stop hitting yourself!”
Leadership requires accountability. Ceaseless praise and unconditional acceptance feel good, but they are served in a poisoned chalice that destroys kings and princes who drink from it. Kaepernick has taken on the mantle of leader; by doing so, he submitted himself to being held to a higher standard. I felt obligated to report what I’d observed.
In addition, I felt the woman who’d contacted me deserved to have her concerns about Kaepernick aired. I believe that, like reports of powerful people being rude to service workers, her accounts of Kaepernick’s lack of respect may shed more light on his character than activism and charity work he’s heaped with praise for. I don’t know Kaepernick personally, so I can’t discern his heart and mind. All I can do is consider the information at my disposal.
The frat parties and keggers that dominate pop culture representations of college life mask how stressful and fraught it often is. It can be an emotionally and psychologically destabilizing environment. With all the newfound independence comes ironically even more peer pressure than there is in high school and fewer protections against it. It can make people unkind to each other. People make poor decisions that they wouldn’t if they were more mature. I would have been more inclined to keep extending the benefit of the doubt that Kaepernick had grown and evolved since his college years had it not been for some of the slippery content on KYRC’s social media.
Nevertheless, I remained bitterly conflicted. Kaepernick’s personal social media, particularly his Instagram, is tumbleweeds much of the time. It seemed unlikely to me that he played much, if any, role in crafting KYRC’s social media strategy. Even so, Kaepernick wasn’t merely along for the ride. It’s his name and reputation at stake. And he’s allowed them to be traded for cheap social media likes. All it would have taken for none of the ethical improprieties at KYRC to have occurred was for Kaepernick to have said, “No.” He didn’t. So, here we are.
In the end, the thing that tipped the scales and got me to publish the article was the pattern of escalation in the unethical behavior I’d observed while going back and bingeing KYRC’s social media posts for research. I sensed a catastrophe pending, so I threw a stun grenade in to try and avert it. I hoped to push Kaepernick into putting a stop to it and prod him into doing better going forward. Some of the bloom may be off Kaepernick’s rose for me, but I don’t want to see him destroyed — he’s far too important. The conflicting information I’ve examined about Kaepernick leaves me at variance with myself — I can’t make up my mind what to think of him. I have, however, accepted that he’s what we have to work with. Kaepernick is the hero we’ve got.
The problems I pointed to at KYRC are serious, but they’re not disastrous and can be corrected quite easily unless the attitude driving them is embedded into the culture. KYRC being made to look like a vanity project being driven by self-promotion could do serious damage to perceptions of Kaepernick’s integrity, though. That’s really the only way to erode his power. It genuinely scares me that Kaepernick and the people who advise him haven’t put this together and made it the foundation of how they shape their strategies for him. Nothing else will matter if Kaepernick’s position on high ground collapses in on itself.
Ever since Kaepernick’s protest became a major news story, I’ve always felt a bit sorry for him. I think he was and continues to be blindsided by how big it all became. He wasn’t prepared. No one could have been. He’s closed a tight circle of people around him who aren’t prepared either.
There’s an obliviousness at work around Kaepernick that could lead to calamity. How boastful some of those problematic KYRC posts were made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Whoever crafted them had no idea, absolutely none, that they weren’t appropriate. It wasn’t a high bar to clear — it’s something every properly functioning philanthropic organization had to figure out. KYRC hadn’t — the seriousness of that failure can’t be brushed aside.
I fear Kaepernick may wander into a buzz saw. Even if he doesn’t, these mistakes may slowly coalesce and reach a destructive critical mass. Particularly if he gets what he wants: proving the NFL colluded against him and shouldering his way back on to a team. He wouldn’t be as much of an underdog any more — it would make some of his supporters more fickle. He’d also be obligated to interact with the press regularly. “Power in silence,” wouldn’t play. My fear for Kaepernick is not that he’ll lose; it’s that he’s not prepared to win.
Kaepernick never asked for the power he’s been given. I’m not sure he wants it. Whatever the case may be, he still isn’t sure when or how to wield it.
I can’t protect Kaepernick from himself. I still feel the urge to, though, if only to advance the causes he’s become the face of. If I could bend his ear, I’d tell him that he has a communication problem (I actually suspect that he’s well aware of this). I’d say that he needs to tell a story. That’s what’s missing — a clear narrative thread and the emotional throughline it provides.
Kaepernick is a fascinating person who is full of contradictions. Those contradictions become problems for him when other people get to interpret them. Kaepernick may not be able to beat back all the misapprehensions about him, but speaking clearly and, yes, repetitively about who he is and what he wants is something he has to find a way to do. I’d also admonish Kaepernick that his story needs to be genuine and sincere. Celebrity cameos and other gaudy embellishments aren’t necessary.
Most importantly, I’d tell Kaepernick to bring in someone whose role it is to protect him from himself and the people around him who believe meaning well is enough. It’s not. None of the pieces I picked up and put together should have been left out. And they certainly shouldn’t have been bragged about on social media. Someone representing Kaepernick’s best interest should have seen what I did and been empowered to nip matters in the bud. There are myriad ways to incorporate celebrities and the attention they bring into Kaepernick’s charitable work without crossing clearly established ethical boundaries. It’s inexcusable that he ended up in this position.
Kaepernick is unique among his peers. He has incredibly powerful adversaries. The risks he’s exposed to have to be managed carefully. That requires telling him things he may really, really not want to hear. Yes-men and sycophants are particularly dangerous to him. He also needs a tight ring of protection drawn around him. It’s a difficult needle to thread. Kaepernick requires bespoke handling.
Kaepernick is bold. He has also shown himself to be prudent at times. Balancing these two attributes correctly is a delicate process. It’s alchemy that’s governed by the unique contours of each subject’s personality. Kaepernick’s contradictions make him a particularly difficult case. He’s mulishly stubborn and affable, bashful and daring, valiant and reticent, charming and diffident. He’s a fiercely private man who, first with his profession, then with his activism, chose the most public of lives. I think Kaepernick is torn between two powerful urges: wanting to change the world and wanting the peace of solitude. He also wants to play football again, which would take time away from both.
Kaepernick’s boldness has secured his place in history unless, by lack of prudence, he writes himself out of it. The weapons his enemies have formed against him have failed to prosper. My greatest fear for Kaepernick is that someone close to him will forge the only armament that can wound him gravely and lob it to his foes over social media in exchange for the cheap, quickly dissipating high of clout.
My greatest hope for Kaepernick is that the messes he sometimes finds himself in are of his own making, that the bad ideas are his, that he’s the engine behind the chaos. I hope it’s him that’s putting his hand on the hot stove and not people who are too careless to check, but, nevertheless, insist on assuring him that everything’s fine. It’s one thing to be willing to die on your own sword; it’s entirely another to sacrifice yourself on the altar of someone else’s ego. At the end of this all — whatever the outcome — I hope Kaepernick can at least say he was true to himself and that he was fighting for what he wanted on his terms as much as was possible.